This post was originally published on my former blog, Meadowsweet & Myrrh, on Monday, May 31, 2010.
It’s Memorial Day here in the United States, and I find myself, once again and as usual, deeply ambivalent.
As a Pagan and a pacifist, as a peacemaking Druid, I know that I am not naturally inclined to celebrate holidays of militarism, patriotism and nationalism. This is simple and straight-forward. I find it easier to celebrate the values commemorated on Martin Luther King Day — those of social justice and the sentiments of equality and community, as well as the grief of injustice and of dreams mown down by hate and violence — than the adolescent indulgence in triumphant glorying and loud reveling that occurs each July on Independence Day.
Yet unlike these others, Memorial Day leaves me feeling disconcerted and conflicted. Every year, all through this holiday weekend I read passing comments and thoughtful reflections alike on the True Meaning of Memorial Day, all repeating and revolving around this singular, pervasive notion: that we must “honor the memory of the soldiers who fought and died for us.”
Honor is such a powerful word, and death such a vital reality. But there is a kind of emptiness, a hollowness echoing within that expression, one that takes for granted what our relationship is to the dead, what our responsibilities are to the living, what honor and memory truly look like, how they function, what they require of us.
There is a part of me that hears this edict, this charge to honor our dead soldiers, and responds with bewilderment and uncertainty. What could this statement possibly mean? What does it mean to honor these dead, and how do we do it? How do we demonstrate or act on this honoring and remembering? Far from rejecting the notion of such honor as mere misdirected nationalist pride or wrong-headed militaristic chauvinism, it seems obvious to me that something else is going on here, something similar to — and yet so different from — the process of grieving.
But when it comes to questions of how to respond to the cultural demand to “honor the soldiers who died for you,” I find that the problem is not so much that I do not want to comply, but that I literally do not know how. Assuming, of course, that our honor and memory should take a form other than silent complicity in the continuing violence and militarism of our government — what should my honor look like?
More than anything else, I have come to understand Memorial Day as a day about families, shattered or wounded by loss, about children whose parents never made it home from the front lines and, perhaps most poignantly in the shared psyche of our culture, about mothers still mourning the death of their children. Those who would rage at me for my ambivalence (some would say cold-heartedness and ingratitude, though they would be wrong) do so, I believe, not really for the sake of the dead, who are by now beyond caring, but for the mothers whose hearts have been broken, whose tears might not even yet be dry on their cheeks, but who have rallied their strength, their courage and even their grief in order to “soldier on” here among the rolling hills and fecund valleys of the safe-guarded homeland, the soft and self-giving heartland that opens itself to sacrifice for the sake of life. It may be the soldiers who die, but it is inevitably their mothers, and their families, who survive to suffer and grieve, and yet sustain and carry on.
It’s no coincidence, I think, that our holidays of war and violence — Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, Veteran’s Day — occur during the lush, fertile months of the year, during seasons of growth, warmth and sunlight, culminating with fruition and harvest. At the height of summer, we see how death and sacrifice lay just under the surface of thriving, squirming life.* It is during this time of the year that we celebrate and honor (in repetitive, often shallow or thoughtless ways) the deaths of “service men and women,” who no doubt themselves played no small part in bringing about the deaths of uncounted and unremembered others while they lived.
In this way, we forge and reinforce this half-unconscious connection between the violence of war and death, and the prosperity and nurturing lushness of the protected heartland. This is the cultural archetype of the noble, grieving mother, who forever gives freely of herself so that others may prosper: it is she who gives life to the son, though he will grow up to break her heart and abandon her loving arms to go off to war; it is she who becomes the first teacher of this son, showing him what strength and courage look like through her unending patience and unconditional support; it is she who shares the risks of war and willingly accepts the burden of living with the wound that loss and death will surely leave; she who must, in the end, watch her children die even as, in her life-bearing role, she gives birth to new children and new possibilities for the future. She is, in short, the archetype of the motherland. She is the very thing, we are told, that our soldiers fight and die for. And she is us.
I honor the land in which and from which I was born, a land that I love deeply. I witness each spring, summer and autumn the dance of death and life taking place, rising up from the moist decay of mud and earth, shining through every bug-bitten leaf. I understand both intellectually and palpably, with my whole body, this relationship between the destructive and the progenitive, and the fearlessness it demands. I know that it is important to honor the strength and courage of the archetypal Great Mother, embodied in the life-sustaining and deeply vulnerable earth. It is important to celebrate our own capacity to withstand death, to bear witness to life as much as to bravely bear life itself. It is important to acknowledge our potential for destructive acts, to remember the real eventuality of our own destruction, and to engage with these possibilities in ways that render them creative, generative and meaningful. And it is important — by the gods is it important! — to grieve.
So many of these themes express themselves in Memorial Day and yet, as I said before, what we experience now is also tragically unlike true grief, honor and memory. What begins as a natural urge to honor and adore the heartland, the motherland of our birth and living, has become increasingly distorted, usurped in the name of the fatherland, the patriarchal nation, the government and the military. What we elevate and honor now is a kind of pathological disjoint that keeps us safe and cut-off from the violence occurring overseas. It is based not on the fearlessness of self-giving life, but on the paranoia and xenophobia of manipulative isolation and imperial bullying, the desperation to escape or postpone death at any price. We have substituted courageous living once again for the disturbing practice of blood sacrifice.
Through our praise and support, hardly less than compulsory in today’s political climate, we raise our military troops and armed forces to the role of temporary kings, investing them with idealized visions of strength, nobility and goodwill that they often fall short of truly possessing (those who succeed in embodying these projections become “real men” who are Army Strong™, while those who fail suffer debilitating stress and shame, leading to self-destructive behaviors, even suicide). We send these soldiers off to kill and be killed in order to secure our own stagnant luxury; through our complicity and patriotic rallying cries, we slaughter and dismember those very “service members” upon whom we have lavished such fantasies and flattery. And when they return to us, we consume them: their images, their trophies and memorials of war, all the while exploding pseudo-bombs above our heads from which these very real soldiers — these humans beings who come home to us wounded in body and soul — too often flinch and shudder. For good measure, we slaughter millions of cattle and pigs and throw their flesh onto the fire. This is the Fourth of July, the holiday in which we celebrate not our interdependence of the living community, but the independence of the nation-state, bought at such a high price.
And so, Memorial Day leaves me with deep feelings of ambivalence, frustration, and grief. The weather today has shifted through moments of heat and intense sunlight, and unexpected hours of rumbling, trembling heavens piled high with thunderclouds letting loose their torrents. While the cyclical nature of the seasons, the dance of life and death in nature, is one that brings with it the promise of new possibilities to experience love, gratitude and beauty even in the depths of difficulty, darkness and pain — the repetitive blood sacrifice of militarism and modern warfare promises little more than a nightmarish future of escalating violence. The debt owed to those sacrificial victims grows ever greater, the security for which they died ever more tenuous, and the past becomes bloated and heavy with abuse, denial and regret.
How can we possibly heal our wounds and overcome our sense of loss — how can we mourn openly and honestly — in such a distorted, unhealthy and unending cultural frenzy? How can anything grow in a field so thoroughly soaked with blood?
[*] Meanwhile, it is during the cold days of winter, those long hours of darkness during which we huddle together around flickering fires, our vulnerable skin bundled against exposure, that we remember and celebrate the values of peace and fellowship. On the darkest night, we honor the rebirth of light and the ideals of love and peace that will carry us through to spring. It is when we are most directly and viscerally confronted with the darkness and the silence and the cold of deep winter that we understand the vitality and necessity of peace, and we gather together, stringing up lights of our own to burn fiercely and lovingly in the night.
• “Memorial Day Commemoration,” by David Yu (CC) 2008 [source]
• “Memorial Day Weekend,” by Bill Dickinson (CC) 2012 [source]
• “Rolling Hills,” by Matt Hintsa (CC) 2006 [source]
• Baker County, courtesy of Baker County Tourism [source]